By John J. Kruzel
American Forces Press Service
Nov. 17, 2009 - As U.S. troops in western Iraq help to prepare for national elections in January, an American commander in the former insurgent hotbed of Anbar province said any potential uptick in violence is unlikely to derail the balloting. For the past two weeks, some of the 5,000 troops of the 82nd Airborne Division's 1st Brigade, under the command of Army Col. Mark Stammer, have been working alongside Iraqi counterparts in Anbar to secure positions and checkpoints for the election.
"Iraqi security forces are well under way for their preparations," Stammer told Pentagon reporters. "We don't anticipate any real spikes in violence that could derail the elections in Anbar province at this time."
Referring to a recent spate of terrorist attacks in the province, including the slaying this week of a Sunni politician and 12 other men in what appears to be a strike by al-Qaida in Iraq, Stammer attributed the violence to separate groups sharing a desire to disrupt the election process.
"These [are] disparate groups coming together for short-term common interests to achieve some measure of success in derailing the elections," he said. "They have not been able to accomplish this to date, nor do I anticipate them being able to accomplish that."
Anbar province was once one of Iraq's most contentious regions, plagued by sectarian violence and an endemic Sunni insurgency. But the region began to stabilize in 2007 amid the surge of U.S. forces and the defection by thousands of Sunni combatants, known as "Sons of Iraq," who left insurgent groups to fight alongside U.S. and Iraqi security forces.
About 119,000 U.S. troops are in Iraq, with that number expected to decline to roughly 50,000 by the end of July as the U.S. military mission there transitions from combat to stability operations, in accordance with an agreement between Washington and Baghdad.
Stammer expressed confidence that the level of professionalism and experience with the Iraqi army and police in the province would prevent a resurgence of extremist groups in the area with the nearing of what he characterized as a "historic election."
After weeks of debate, Iraqi legislators on Nov. 8 approved a new election law to supersede one put in place in 2005, overcoming earlier hurdles that included disputes over Kurd and Arab political representation in Kirkuk -- part of Iraq's multiethnic northern region.
"With the recent passage of the Iraqi election law, we appear to be only two months away from yet another historic election," Stammer said. "The brigade will be there to assist the Iraqis, as they ask us to do so and in accordance with the security agreement."
The bilateral security arrangement, which took effect Jan. 1, effectively gave operational authority to Iraqi troops and relegated U.S. forces to an advisory role. At the end of July, U.S. forces pulled back from Iraqi cities and urban centers, where Iraqi forces now have exclusive security authority unless American forces are requested to aid operations.